A picture can be black and white, shades of gray, or even full color. Truth is often thought of as black and white, but is it? A university professor of mine favored a baseball allegory to explain changing theoretical approaches through recent decades. In the pre-modern era, an umpire would say, ‘There’s balls and there’s strikes, I call them as they are.’ A modern umpire would say, ‘There’s balls and there’s strikes, I call them as I see them.’ An umpire from the post-modern school of thought would say, ‘There’s balls and there’s strikes, they’re nothing until I call them.’ In this simple allegory we can see the progression of how truth is conceptualized: From an absolute truth that exists independent of the observer, to truth being completely dependent on the observer’s experience of it, until we finally arrive at the observer holding all the power as they create truth.
Curiously enough, in my largely informal but highly integrated observation of New Agers, I have witnessed all three methods of thought put to use. The pre-modern notion of absolute truth is exhibited in the way New Agers often strip away the structures of organized religion in the interest of discovering the raw wisdom and spirituality that lies at the core, suggesting these elements exist independent of followers, nay-sayers, or resultant social constructs. Often the layers of meaning contributed by organized religion throughout history are thought to taint or water-down the faith rather than enrich it. Yet there is also evidence of the modern approach: letting one’s experiences dictate the individual’s understanding of truth. New Agers are encouraged to explore many different traditions in search what ‘speaks to them’. They take what beliefs and traditions ‘serve them’ and leave behind the rest. They search for ‘their truth’, led by their own experiences.
Even the post-modern is evident in New Age, especially in the genre of self-help. New Age logic affirms that you can become whoever you want, and dreams can become reality; all through the power of our thoughts and the strength of our will. The Buddhist principle of emptiness is one example I’ve heard frequently in New Age circles. Nothing has a nature of its own; the observer dictates the nature. A person or a situation is not bad, good, scary or loving on its own; the observer assigns such characteristics. In this school of thought all power lies with the observer. Your world can change if you change how you regard it. Truth can change from one person to the next with varying worldviews.
I hope to learn more about this progression of thought: pre-modern, modern, and post-modern. But more so to explore how elements manifest in the New Age milieu, and how these different theoretical structures are reconciled in this highly complex and loosely organized system.
Many Christian denominations are struggling to stay current and relevant in today’s society. But the question arises: How much modernizing can be done while keeping tradition alive and core principles intact? Marva J. Dawn works to answer this question in her book, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture. She gets at practical issues such as updating song lyrics and modernizing instruments used in worship, or praying in the language of today rather than yesteryear. Questioning these elements often prompts heated debates, and causes large upsets amongst traditionalists. Perhaps because any choice in the matter is quickly disappearing as people continue disappearing from the pews. Though there is certainly resistance and dissent on how to tackle the issue, I think there is consensus that the church needs to find relevance with younger generations.
What I find curious is how New Age is so often criticized for its currency and attractiveness in today’s culture. Yet these are attributes Christian churches are now looking to exhibit, though with some definite differences. Dawn marks out this difference, that God’s people are to live ‘in’ the world, but not be ‘of’ the world (17). While New Age one the other hand is largely thought to take its shape from the culture it is situated in (modern / postmodern Western culture depending on your inclination). And this influence from the mainstream is what makes it meld so well with culture, not to mention its popularity. (For more on this see my article “A Secular New Age or A New Age Secularism”.) But by living ‘in’ the world while not being ‘of’ it, people can maintain divine virtues and resist false idols such as money without becoming hermits. New Ages tend to embrace the notion that the world and all beings are connected, which doesn’t much align with this ‘in’ / ‘of’ idea. That being said, New Agers are not on-board with many things in mainstream culture and as a general rule favor alternative paths. On the ‘in’ / ‘of’ notion, maybe New Agers and Christians have more in common than what meets the eye.
Perhaps the same can be said in other respects. Though New Age is characterized as eclectic, or dominated by passing fads rather than sound theology, Christians may be able to learn a thing or two about relevance and worshipping in harmony with the world beyond its doors. It would be far more effective to learn from a group rather than criticize, when they in fact have desirable characteristics. However, I believe this is easier said than done. When it comes to religion and spirituality, the lines are fine and the slopes slippery. But in dire times these challenges must be faced with discretion and an open mind.
Dawn, Marva J. Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture. Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1995.
In the fast-paced life of Western society, we often find our daily lives in a state of busy chaos. If we find routine in the secular world, it often is something we come to resent. Routine becomes tedious and monotonous. But routine in the spiritual realm becomes something very different as ritual. While ritual has many functions and affects, I wish to focus on one: its ability to provide stability and help us hone in on the subtle and not so subtle changes in ourselves and our surrounding world.
Routine through ritual focuses the mind on the divine or good intentions taken on with the desire to immolate or win favor from the divine. Through this act, the mind can find quiet from the everyday clutter, whether it be chaos or monotony, to look inward. When participating in a ritual repeatedly, the participant can then discern that any changes in emotion or thought are from themselves changing. The constancy and stability lets ritual act as a clean backdrop to examine one’s life and the perpetual changes of life. One constant makes fluctuations easier to spot. Perhaps spotting them in a time focused on the divine helps one channel divinely inspired responses rather than responses fueled by emotion or negative aspects of popular culture such as vengeance, greed, or fear.
In America it seems that once we understand it is wrong to persecute those different from ourselves, the acceptable answer is to keep those people at arm’s length. Separating ‘them’ from ‘us’, pretending that they do not exist or do not affect us. We build up our walls, and put on our blinders to keep out anything different or ‘bad’. We should know that different does not mean bad. I dare say most religious and spiritual traditions have good to offer. And most of those traditions would encourage us not to keep this good for ourselves, but share it with others. Through we come from different walks of life, we all have good to share. In a time where violence seems to be erupting in every corner of the world, there is no time like the present to start spreading that good around.
It can be tempting to build walls against the odd and scary, or simply the unknown that lies ‘out there’. But for the spiritually inclined it is just as important to look outward to share as it is to look inward or upward in reverence and meditation. If you first shut out the world, next you will cut out your loved ones, then finally yourself along with your deepest beliefs and experiences (Sri Chinmoy, 222-223). All of your faith and work developing a great relationship with the divine will be for nothing if it is not readily shared. There is nothing wrong with building up your life to be happy, safe, and full of spiritual riches. Protect it, but do not hoard it for yourself. Instead let it be a beacon, a light for others, an inspiration.
When people from many walks of life draw on their spiritual traditions to better their community, there will be instances of overlap as they encounter each other in our increasingly small world. There may be misunderstanding or even conflict. But when wisdom and peace remains cloistered, there is no overlap. Instead there are gaping holes left largely untouched by good, leaving only pain and confusion. If we can learn to listen and respect each other when our desires to help the world overlap, it will be much better than holding each other at arm’s length. Then we can move past tolerance to true harmony, and work in goodness to improve the world we all share.
Sri Chinmoy. The Divine Hero: Winning in the Battlefield of Life. 2002. London: Watkins Publishing.
This Saturday I am getting married at my tiny Episcopal church. With my fiancée being Australian, we have been comparing notes on differences in wedding tradition between our cultures. But as we’ve sat through our-premarital counseling with the priest that will officiate our ceremony, I’ve learned about the ceremony, its symbolism, and both is secular and sacred components. Even in a church wedding, both are present.
The beginning of the service primarily consists of secular logistics. For example, the tradition of a father walking the bride down the aisle to hand her off to the groom, is a remnant from days when women were property. It was an exchange of goods. Then comes the ‘speak now or forever hold your peace’ bit. The key component here is that the objector must have ‘just cause’ as to why the couple cannot be ‘legally married’. (For example one is already married to someone else). Here secular law weighs in. Further confirming the legality of the marriage is the declaration of consent. This bit exists primarily to ensure the bride and groom are there of their own free will, and are not being coerced in any way that would make the marriage null and void. Only after all these secular proceedings does the marriage officially start as far as the church is concerned. There are nearly four pages in the prayer book before the actual marriage. In our service, there is no place to sign the marriage license. This legal component is completed at another time. Rather than the legal binding of signing, it is the binding of the couple before God when they say their vows that is the climax of the service.
Though the priest leads the services, he takes a backseat at the vows, the climax. Rather than prompt and response, we will take our vows on our own. Here there is no intermediary between us and God. Only once the vows are complete does the priest call on God to seal and bless the marriage. The priest is the presider, not the facilitator. In this ceremony we will move through the spectrum of secular to sacred. Making our vows in the presence of God, family and friends. Just like daily life, on this special occasion, we will live in both realms marrying the mundane and the divine.